Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Crumbling ceilings, Commissioners and why women hold the secret to the future of work

Cressida Dick takes her place as the new Comissioner
In the end, it wasn't a sudden smash, more a gradual crumbling of the ceiling. The progress of women in top jobs has been steady but sure over the past couple of years. And so far in 2017 it feels like it's reached new levels. Theresa May has been keeping a tight grip on leadership. Last week she pulled off the virtually impossible task of snatching a solid Labour seat in the Copeland by-election. A feat not accomplished by a sitting government for the past thirty years. 
Jeremy Corbyn mystified by loss of Copeland

Thursday brought the news of Cressida Dick's appointment to lead the Metropolitan Police, ultimate bastion of male dominance. Interestingly much of the coverage cites her popularity and respect with the London police force suggesting she combines professional expertise with good people skills
Theresa May and Cressida Dick have something else in common. They were appointed following men who had left prematurely. Women still often get the top jobs when times are tough - when organisations feel they have run out of male choices. But this doesn't have to be bad. There's nothing like taking on something that your predecessors have failed to fix and turning it around to boost the ego. In Dick's case she's taken up the reins after the early departure of Sir Bernard Hogen-Howe. The role has become something of a poisoned chalice with few of her predecessors emerging with their reputations enhanced

The fictional crime world is reflecting reality with the new season of Channel 4's fantastic No Offence. This police drama has an almost entirely female cast - all the lead characters including the gangland villain are women. And not nice fluffy ones. But tough, ballsy, often flawed and sometimes unpleasant women. in other words a realistic group of people getting an important job done. And it feels no more of a 'statement' than a woman in Downing Street or running the Met. 

In the communications world, The Holmes Report 2017 has nearly doubled the percentage of women in their 2017 People to Watch index. No one commented on this - it was just seen as normal. 

But with a narrative of exclusion and smashing ceilings, perhaps we lost sight of the real goal - for it to be run-of-the-mill for women to be in charge. There's a time to fight - and a time to normalise. 

Which is not to say every aspect of gender equality is fixed.  

Some things are taking longer - and proving more persistent. Sexism certainly isn't going away. The Everyday Sexism project which I first wrote about over a year ago is depressingly full of examples - some quite horrifying - of the kind of regular sexism that women of all ages, races and religions still routinely experience.

It's a year since the government announced that large companies would have to publish their gender pay statistics. The UK PR industry is hot on the issue, with leadership bodies pushing for gender pay transparency to narrow the gap faster. But it is still better than in many parts of the UK economy.

There is still much to be done and we can't relax. But perhaps it's time to consolidate significant gains and release energy for new problems, not just recycle the old ones.

The productivity crisis in the UK workforce is accelerating with fewer and fewer people available to fill the roles needed to support the economy in the future. An ageing population is a major factor - people are retiring faster than they are being replaced. Until recently, this gap has been hidden by immigration but Brexit may crystallise this productivity gap.  Businesses need to focus on how to address this gap. There are solutions being proposed and time is of the essence. 

Bringing women back into work from career breaks on a much bigger scale will make a real difference. The UK PR industry has made progress in this area that we can share. Returnships are a brilliant idea using ideas designed for first jobbers to ease women back into roles.
Green party joint leaders

Flexitime is important.  Models are becoming more common and accepted and again PR does well with over a quarter of people working in the industry taking advantage of these options.  The Power Part Time Top 50 showcases a wide range of women and men who are working in part time, but powerful roles. In some cases that's taking a four day week. In others it's job shares.  Interestingly two of its members are Sarah Lucas and Jonathan Bartley who jointly run the Green Party of England and Wales

Embracing automation is key and is another important area we should engage in. It has become a negative issue, often linked in media discussion to the loss of blue collar jobs and associated disaffection with mainstream politics. But there's a real opportunity to share our work proactively with machines. Getting this right will be key to building a productive future. It's about playing to strengths.  Machines can't manage people or take responsibility and blame but computers could - and can - be taught to make a perfect flat white

Women should be championing this trend. Working women have long been enthusiastic adopters of new technology to allow them to work whilst being mothers and running homes. From the advent of the washing machine in the 1960s to the wealth of apps with which many working women now juggle their lives, we are adept and confident at working in partnership with machines for maximum gain. We should be enthusiastically advocating a positive approach for introducing more automation where we can to support a healthier, happier and more productive workforce

There are many challenges ahead. But we've made real progress and should have the confidence to use that experience to tackle new challenges, not just recycle old ones. Let's apply the same energy to these that we applied to the glass ceiling.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Egos, Equality and the death of the Super-Chicken

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The New Yorker

Am I the only person who is thoroughly depressed with their New Year social media feed? At every turn I am assaulted by hand-wringing posts and articles predicting the end of days .  But there's a notable lack of recommendations of action. Just endless analysis of the implications of the tumultuous global events of 2016.

I don't feel qualified to comment on whether we're in a re-run of the 1930s.  I just hope we're not.  But those doom-mongering commentators and I do agree on one thing.  Narcissists are on the increase and that's bad for business as well as bad for world security.  Where have they all come from?  Instagram, Whats App and other platforms must play a part.  Selfies have a way of making the most modest of us more focused on ourselves and the image we project.  Our love affair with reality TV must contribute.

'The Donald' is their new tribal leader. He may be the first global narcissist cross-over. He made a successful career out of developing and promoting a towering ego first in business then in reality television where narcissism is an entry criteria. And getting yourself elected against all the odds as the leader of the free world has got to make his ego hit new heights.  Anyone might start believing they're a bit special.

There's another common theme in those 2017 narratives. That right-wing populist leaders are rising because we've all got fed up with left wing liberals who don't provide charismatic visionary leadership that speaks to our priorities.  Perhaps.  But in politics as in business, our expectations of leaders have changed.  And whether we know it or not, we're reaping the results of our own habits. .

It's all about the super-chickens

Award-winning author and business leader Margaret Heffernan sheds light on this in a recent Ted Talk. She explains that  for the past fifty years modern management has followed the super-chicken theory.  It was named after an experiment by geneticist William Muir.  He took two flocks of chickens and bred them for six generations.  The first group was left completely alone.  In the second group he selected only the most productive chickens - based on egg laying - and bred them together to produce 'super-chickens'. After six generations the first group were happy, healthy and egg production had been boosted significantly.  In the second group only three chickens remained.  They had pecked all the others to death.

Margaret Heffernan: Why it's time to forget the pecking order at work

And so it is in business.  Organisations are wedded to the culture of the superstar in the belief that super results will ensue.  We aim to create the 'best of the best' and promote individual leaders with vision and charisma.

What's wrong with a bit of healthy competition?
Oh, that always makes women sigh.   Another Trump speciality, it's the bedrock of most reality TV and the rallying cry of the super-chicken.

As we can see, it turns out there's quite a lot wrong with needless competition and this path doesn't work any better for us than chickens. We know this really, but seem unable to learn from experience and find ourselves again and again bemoaning the lack of leadership choices.  Fillon or Le Pen? Clinton or Trump?  We are so hardwired, we are unable to break out. 

In response to Heffernan's Ted Talk, Reuven Gorsht, then head of Customer Strategy at SAP wrote:
"We criticize leaders today not because they are less capable than they were in the past but because we expect more than they can deliver. Our expectations of leaders have grown astronomically because of increasing complexity and the rate of change, causing our anxiety to go through the roof. No wonder the superflock is focused on killing each other. Imagine the pressure and the level of competitiveness needed just to survive".

So what's the alternative? 
Heffernan's talk cited three key common features of the most successful teams in an MIT experiment.  They were:
  • Empathy - team members showed high degrees of social sensitivity to each other
  • Balance - they gave similar amounts of time to all members so that no voice dominated and no one was a passenger
  • Women - the teams contained more women
Not only did the most successful teams feature more women, they also featured attributes that have often been described as 'female'.  Other research supports this.  But our addiction to the superstar culture usually overrides the data. Which is worrying because we've never had a more urgent need to crack this problem. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School says:
“There’s a growing recognition that most of today’s truly important problems related to the environment, related to smart cities, related to health care simple cannot be solved without cross-disciplinary collaboration.”
Highly functional teams are the way forward and there is evidence that women tend to prefer team environments and men individual ones.  The snag is that this is usually seen as negative - driven by a fear of individual competition whereas men relish it.  Digging into this issue, I came across a a fascinating experiment which tested the choices men and women would make - individual or team - when money was involved. It showed that the women chose teamwork more often than men.  "Of course" I hear you say.  "Surely it makes sense to put more brains together.  Why limit it to one person when you could benefit from the wisdom of many". "No brainer".  But time after time, tests show that men have more confidence in themselves - and this experiment showed that the higher the stakes, the more they trusted their own judgement over that of a group.

Clearly we're not giving off the right vibes or everyone would pick teams.  So if we want to make a real change, we have to overcome this view that women pick team activities not because of the logic of the power of a group but because they are afraid of individual competition - and of being judged on their own.

As we look forward into the uncertain complexities of this year surely that has to be a sensible area for focus.  We just need to gather the confidence to call out the super-chicken and argue our preferences with confidence - as a positive choice with better outcomes.